Paul A. Eisenstein: 2010 Buick LaCrosse takes on popular Lexus

Paul A. Eisenstein

In its bid to win a bailout from the American government, General Motors announced plans to slash the number of brands it brings to market. But while Pontiac, Hummer, Saab and Saturn will vanish, GM surprised critics with plans to prop up its long-struggling Buick brand.

So the all-new 2010 LaCrosse could be the make-it-or-break-it model for the once well-regarded Buick. The sedan “will be a key offering,” says Susan Docherty, head of sales for GM and until recently Buick general manager.

Think of the 2010 Buick LaCrosse as more than just another midsize sedan. It is as much as anything a vehicle designed to resolve the marque’s long-running “perception problem.”

As with the brand’s other recent offerings, LaCrosse has been heavily influenced by the Chinese market, where, ironically, Buick is a major force. Long and low, with a muscular hood and a surprisingly short deck lid, the 2010 entry was inspired by the Invicta and Riviera show cars, both of which first debuted behind the old Bamboo Curtain. Indeed, GM’s Chinese team oversaw the design of the vehicle, though its architecture is European, and overall engineering was turned over to Detroit.

Now reaching showrooms across the country, LaCrosse is primarily targeting the Lexus brand, which has, in many ways, adapted the sort of attributes that once defined Buick, including a tomb-quiet interior and “boulevard” ride. In particular, the domestic sedan goes head-to-head with the Lexus ES350, one of the most popular models in the Lexus line-up.

With the upcoming addition of a new I-4, Buick will offer the 2010 LaCrosse with a trio of powertrain choices, all paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission. The base engine will become a mileage-minded 2.4-liter inline-four, which delivers an acceptable 182 horsepower – and 20 mpg city/30 highway, according to the EPA.

A step up and you’ll get the 3.0-liter V-6, which gets you 252 horsepower in all-wheel-drive trim and 255 horsepower for the front-driver. For some real fun, consider the 280-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6, the most direct alternative to the Lexus ES’s 3.5-liter powertrain.

The Japanese alternative is a bit quicker – about a second faster than the Buick’s 7.5 seconds 0 to 60 – but the 2010 LaCrosse is just more fun, especially when switched to sport mode, which minimizes body roll.

The quiet cabin is the most refined and elegant Buick has delivered in decades, with the ice blue lighting of its gauge cluster adding a nice high-tech touch further accented by the big navigation screen.

Buick is hoping to target a younger and more affluent customer than the brand normally sees. The Enclave SUV has shown this is possible. Now it will be up to LaCrosse to build on that momentum.

Paul A. Eisenstein is an award-winning journalist who has spent more than 30 years covering the global auto industry. His work appears in a wide range of publications worldwide, and he is a frequent broadcast commentator on subjects automotive.

2010 Buick LaCrosse

Miles per gallon: 20 city/30 highway, with 2.4-liter inline four.

Engine options: 2.4-liter inline-four, 182-horsepower; 3.0-liter V-6 252 horsepower (with all-wheel-drive), 255 horsepower (with front-wheel-drive); 3.6-liter V-6, 280 horsepower.

Manufacturer’s suggested retail price (base): $25,000 (est. with 2.4-liter I-4), $27,835 (with 3.0-liter V-6).

Cost fully loaded: $38,000, est.